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Why Community Murals Rock: An Interview with Joel Bergner

October 17, 2017

When considering the socially unifying and emotionally cathartic impact Art can have, there a few examples that validate this perception more than the work of Joel Bergner (AKA Joel Artista). Joel is a pioneer of 'community-based public art', and has facilitated hundreds of community murals in some of the most deprived areas of the world.

These beautiful murals, hand-painted by the whole community, tell the story of a collective group of people- their voices amplified through colour, shape and image. In this way, the public mural becomes more than just an inanimate piece of art: it becomes a reflection of the spirit of an entire community.


The profound imagery captured in mural artwork is often the most direct and powerful form of expression these groups have at their disposal. This has particular importance within camp communities where opportunity for creativity and emotional expression is very limited.


Importantly, these murals also provide a tool for communication to the outside world- allowing disadvantaged and marginalized groups the chance to have their voices heard. In this way, Joel's work extends beyond the artistic, and becomes a catalyst for social change.


Some of Joel's most poignant and well-known murals of recent years have been painted in the Za'atari refugee camps in Syria, where he has spent long periods of time coordinating large-scale community murals with refugee kids and young people. 

Drawing upon his background in counselling and youth mentoring, Joel helps to bring communities together, offering through the collaborative creative process the opportunity for group discussion and dialogue. This is crucial, especially in groups which have been torn apart by conflict, and where there are deep social and religious divides, such as in Israel and Palestine.


Moving forward, Joel is now co-director of Artolution, a non-profit which facilitates murals all over the world in collaboration with local artists and grassroots community groups. To date, Artolution has produced murals in 30 countries across Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, North America, Australasia and South Asia, working with groups including street youth, refugees, the mentally and physically disabled, and young people living in extreme poverty.


I had the honor of interviewing Joel the other day: we spoke about his work, about the children he met along the way, about his plans for the future, and the importance of art as a creative outlet and communicative tool. Listening to his words, and looking at all the pictures of his work- the messages of hope expressed in the artwork, and the smiling faces of all the young people whose lives he has touched- left me  with a huge amount of respect and appreciation for Joel's work, and a better understanding of the empowering social impact of community-based public art.




Let’s start with your early life… How did your love for art begin? Was there a definitive moment when you realised that art could/would play a significant role in your life?

"I was always one of those kids that loves to draw, to paint, to make things in general- I was just always into art. That interest became much more intense when I was a teenager. I think adolescence in general is something that’s always a difficult transition for people, and for me, I was also a teenage parent- my son was born when I was in high school, and that was something very beautiful in my life, but also something that was difficult to deal with.

I think as a young person there is lot of emotions that are difficult to handle, and art is an outlet for that. It’s important to have those outlets, it’s important to have positive activities to focus on. I think that was a lesson for me that helped later on when I began working with young adults and teenagers, who had much greater challenges than I had, and just realising that art can be a way for them to have something positive to focus on too."


 Who was the most influential person in your early life? Somebody who encouraged you to be creative, and helped you in your path?

"My parents were very encouraging of my creativity and my art- they were really into culture and art from all over the world… that really influenced me at the time. And also the future and the future of my career."


Your parents were Jewish refugees themselves. How did that effect you growing up? And My how has that influenced your current work with refugees?

"They were not refugees themselves, it was my great grandparents who had come over as refugees to New York. My grandmother really emphasized what they had gone through to me. It was something I just grew up with, knowing that they had faced persecution in Russia and eastern Europe- that made me really empathize with people in those current situations."


Leading on from the previous questions: For those of us (like myself!) who possibly don’t understand what it is like to experience displacement/ cultural bereavement… can you explain some of those feelings?

"I have talked to so many people, and have realized that there has been so much drama before the displacement, during the war... to find yourself in a new country, in a really difficult environment like a refugee camp, or a city where you don’t know anybody… to have to start over, when you already have so much to deal with…  so many people have said that they feel like their lives are on hold… they used to have a community, a career, education, and now suddenly they find themselves in this position where they and their families are stuck, and it’s really heartbreaking to hear their stories, to hear what they are going through and what little support they have."


Can you briefly summarise why you were drawn to art? Was it a coping mechanism? A way to express your emotions?

"Art is something that I have always been able to utilize as a coping mechanism and a positive activity for me to express my feelings, and to be able to focus on when I didn’t know how to deal with my feelings or my experiences. That lesson I have really carried through. I was a counselor for many years with young people who had been abused and neglected, faced violence, drug abuse and prostitution- so many terrible things at such a young age. Whether it was painting, or dance or music, these kinds of activities, you saw that they were often the only moments where these kids could be themselves and come out of their shell. They needed that, and it was so important and therapeutic for them. These were things that I carried through when I started combining community work with creating public art."


It is said that a lot can be learnt from the mode of expression a creative person chooses. With that being said, what attracted you to acrylic/ aerosol? Do you think it says something about you as a person?

"I have always been somebody who can express themselves better through images, and I particularly gravitated towards large public works of art- so that’s where you have the acrylic and especially the spray paint. When you often have a limited amount of time and a giant space, and you have a bunch of people watching, these are the tools that you can use to create a huge image. It can be something public, it can be something that speaks to the whole community, and it really gets visual art out of the galleries and the museums (there is nothing wrong with a gallery or a museum, but they have very limited audience- and often many people, especially people from marginalized communities often feel that it not something they have access to, or can relate to.) But when you have murals on the street and street graffiti, these are the kind of genres that are open, and everybody can enjoy, and that everyone has access to. And so that’s why I gravitated towards those mediums."


You have a background in youth counselling; working with young people coping with trauma, mental health and drug problems. You mention that your background in counselling heavily informs your current work with refugee youth. Can you tell us a bit more about this? What did you learn? How do apply those lessons to your current work?

"Besides the ‘coping mechanism aspect’, I have also learned in these different intense refugee situations, slum communities and extreme environments that art, especially public art, is a way for people to come together to collaborate. It’s a way for people to bond, including those who might mistrust members of an opposite group, who might have hatred or intolerance- it’s a way for those groups to come together. Through my work at Artolution, with Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem and throughout the Middle East, we have been able to bring them together through the arts.

I think that’s the lesson I have taken from a lot of these experiences- often you have issues that are taboo and really sensitive and difficult for people to talk about, but when you say, ‘hey we have a common mission, we are gonna come together, we are gonna think about something together, about the future. What do you what to envision for that future? How do you want it to be better than it is now?’, these are ways in which people can come together and it can create a transformative experience for them."





As you help nurture creativity in the youth that you work with, do you notice significant emotional/behavioural changes? What is the most drastic transformation you have witnessed in a person you have worked with? How is that reflected in their art?

"In terms of transformations, definitely in almost every group you can see that they start off very reserved and shy and in their own shell, but when you add in these artistic activities, and they are with their peers and meeting new people, you will see that suddenly this whole new personality will come out, and that they are able to overcome some of the things that had made them more reserved in the first place. That’s always amazing to see, and I’ve seen that in so many kids, in basically all the groups that we’ve worked with, that experience happens.

In terms of individual kids, one that we have recently worked with, his name is Mohammed, he is 14 years old, and he lives in in Jordan. We started having a big discussion about what we were going to paint, about what was important in the children' lives and in their communities. He said that he was really concerned with the fact that Syria was going to have nobody to rebuild it because everybody his age was working to support their families, and having to be involved with child labour. 

Mohammed got so passionate about this, he stood up, did a speech and said, ‘this is what I think the mural should be about..’, and we said ‘ok great idea’, so we ended up painting a mural based upon his idea. Mohammed also decided to go and join a group of kids his age who were going off to work, and he wrote a big report about that experience. He got up at 3am, he had a big day with them, saw the struggles that they went through, which he had a lot of empathy for. He then came back and wrote an entire essay about it, and presented it to us.

It was really moving to me that he was so passionate about this issue- the art really brought that out, the fact that we were going to create a whole work of art for the community about an issue. He really gravitated towards that, and he was able to put so much energy into that."


From the shanty towns of Kenya, to the refugee camps of Syria, to juvenile detention centres in America; you have travelled all over the world and created murals with many different communities. Are the messages displayed in the murals universal? Or do they diverge quite a lot?

"There is a lot of commonality, but there are also things that are different. People definitely feel that they have a lot to say to the world, and that there is a lot of hope for the future. Within the mural, they often want to envision a brighter future- and what that future looks like is often very similar. People want a good education, they want peace, they want a positive community in which people from all different backgrounds can share with one another, and respect one another’s differences. And this is something that I’ve seen basically in most places. It’s something that people all have in common.

The differences I also really respect and admire- these are basically cultural differences. For example, in Kenya we did a mural right before the presidential elections in 2013; in the previous election there had been a lot of violence and rioting, political and ethnic-based attacks, and killings, and many of the politicians were involved in paying people to go and fight. So the image that the community designed was two hyenas who wore business suits, who were having tea together and laughing. The message beneath it said ‘we don’t want to follow these kinds of leaders’. That wouldn’t make sense in many places, but in this region, hyena is a slang term for a corrupt politician.

That’s the kind of scenario where it’s important to listen to the local community and allow them to decide on the imagery and themes. If you come from the outside you really need to respect these wishes, and what they think is the best message and best imagery for their community."


The children you met at Za’atari must have loved making the art murals, and collaborating with each other to produce a communal piece of art. You mentioned that this creative partnership sometimes helped to alleviate tensions and bring different cultures or religions closer together. Can you describe one example of this?

"I mentioned the Palestinians and Israelis- that has been the group with the most tension out of all the groups I have worked with. To take two groups who never interact with each other, who have grown up hearing that the other side is to be feared and to be hated, for them to come together as teenagers, the first thing is to realise that they are just people, just teenagers as well. That common humanity really comes through right away. They realise that maybe they like the same pop music , they all have a lot of energy, they like art, they like to dance and that they have a lot in common- although this doesn’t mean that they are going to agree with each other on various political matters. 

For that matter, each side is very diverse- Palestinians don’t necessarily agree with Palestinians and vice versa, but that’s okay. People don’t have to agree, its about learning to respect each other, and to see the things that people do have in common. To have that feeling of being able to create something with someone, to have that common goal, and work towards that together, that experience can really lead to change. Many of the kids would come and say afterwards ‘wow I have never interacted with someone from the other side before/ Now I realise that a lot of them are really nice people and we do have a lot in common/ This experience was really valuable to me’.